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Summit Big Idea: Bike To Shop Day

National Bike Month isn’t just about riding to work. Bike to Work Day is just one event in May — what about those 30 other days? Janet Lafleur seized the opportunity, and teamed up with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to organize a Bike to Shop Day in the region during Bike Month in 2014. Her Big Idea, which she’ll be speaking more about at the 2015 National Bike Summit, is to expand Bike To Shop Day. We spoke with Lafleur about how Bike to Shop Day came to be and where she’s set her sights for the future.  

How did Bike to Shop Day come to be?

The idea had been kicking around in my head for years. I saw how popular and successful Bike to Work Day had become, and how it had turned so many people on to bicycling for transportation. But it always seemed too limited. The average work commute is about 10 miles one-way, which is a long ride for many people, but most shopping and errand trips are within a few miles from home. That’s a much easier way to get started. And unlike work, no one cares if you show up at the grocery store in shorts and a t-shirt. 

Lafleur, far left, on Bike to Shop Day in 2014

But what lit my fire to take action started at a planning commission meeting on the redevelopment of a major shopping center. I had just spoken about how I lived two miles from the center so I biked there to do all my shopping — groceries, clothes, housewares — and how good bike access was important. A few minutes later a commissioner said, “I can see people biking to offices here and even to the movie theater, but I can’t see people biking to shop. Shopping is all about driving your SUV to the store and filling it up.” My jaw dropped.

I went home so angry it took me and extra hour to fall sleep. Still, I realized that we’ve been hosting Bike to Work Day in our area for the last 20 years and the result is that bike commuting is now planned for. We need that same visibility for shopping by bike, too. So I funneled my anger into action. 

Your big idea is to spread Bike to Shop Day nationwide — how are you envisioning that roll out?

Well, they always say to “Think globally, act locally” so my first step was to see what we could do it a few nearby cities. I sketched out the basics with help of a couple of bike advocate friends, then pitched it the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. They loved the idea and immediately agreed to support and sponsor it. We expected to have participating businesses in 3-4 business districts, but our enthusiastic team of 15 volunteers recruited 90 shops in 11 cities to offer special deals or giveaways for people arriving by bike.

As for “thinking nationally” the next step is to get the word out and support others who want to host their own Bike to Shop Day. There’s been a lot of “bikes mean business” energy nationwide, and not just in the major bike cities like Portland, San Francisco and Washington D.C. In my hometown of Baton Rouge, where few people bike commute, I see advocates making strong partnerships with business districts to make them bike-friendly. A Bike to Shop Day would be an extension of relationships and programs that many bike coalitions and business associations already have in play.

You mentioned that most Americans live less than 2 miles from their shopping destinations. What do you see as the best ways to convince people that bicycling is a feasible — and fun! — option for them to get to those destinations?

The first thing people ask about is how they can carry their purchases home. You certainly don’t need an SUV or even a cargo bike, but without a basket, a rack and panniers, or a trailer you’re going to be limited to what you can carry in a backpack. On our Bike to Shop Day web site, we have lots of information on how to gear up, like how to make panniers from reusable grocery bags, how to convert an old mountain bike into a grocery-getter, and even what to stuff in your seat pack  for impromptu shopping stops.

We also held a Bike to Shop Challenge where people sent in photos decked out with purchases, like with flats of strawberries from farmers market or with window fans from the hardware store. I admit that part of the fun of shopping by bike is figuring out how I can carry things home, most recently a mop on my Brompton folding bicycle.

And as always, another obstacle for people just starting out bicycling is finding routes they’re comfortable biking. The good news here is that it’s a lot easier for most people to find a good route to the grocery or drug store than to their workplace.

Bike To Shop Day inspired us, in part, to start an online campaign during Bike Month 2014 focused on biking everywhere. #BikeToEverywhere was a great way to demystify stereotypes around bicycling and bicyclists (bike commuting is the only reason to bike, for example). How do you see Bike to Shop Day playing a role in that?

I loved the #BiketoEverywhere photos last year! I had no idea Bike to Shop Day helped inspire it.

 The emphasis for bicycling in the US has been for sport or for bike commuting, where you’re presumed to riding hard and showering on arrival. That’s fine, but there are so many more places you can go by bike if think beyond that mindset: to the beach, to the ball game, to the mall, to a fancy restaurant, even to the airport. With Bike to Shop Day you can recruit a broad variety of businesses to suit everyone. We had everything from candy stores to hair salons to bookstores to climbing gyms. And of course, plenty of bike shops.

What’s your ultimate hope with Bike To Shop Day?

My dream is that in the future when city commissioners discuss plans for redeveloping a shopping center, they’ll say: “There isn’t much space for car parking, we’re going to need more bike racks.”

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